Balenciaga ‘Gift Shop’ Campaign Backlash
The fashion world was rocked by a firestorm of criticism after two new Balenciaga campaigns were released, sparking allegations that the brand condoned child exploitation. Balenciaga, known for its controversial designs under the artistic direction of Demna since 2015, has often courted controversy intentionally. Some of the notable attention-grabbing campaigns in the last few years have included putting high heels on Crocs footwear, remaking the 99-cent IKEA shopping bag and selling it as a luxury product, presenting models dressed like refugees during a fashion show, paired with trash bags that were made out of leather, and even dressing Kim Kardashian in a black body stocking for the Met Gala in 2021.
The first campaign, titled Balenciaga Gift Shop, featured photos of children holding destroyed teddy bear handbags with black eyes, leather harnesses, and fishnet tops, surrounded by gift items. Outraged observers accused the brand of glamorizing bondage paraphernalia alongside children. The second campaign, 2023 Garde-Robe, included images that appeared to feature paperwork related to child pornography laws as a prop.
The controversy rapidly spread across social media and conservative media outlets, such as Fox News, which has been known for publicizing and mainstreaming QAnon conspiracy theories. Balenciaga’s initial responses of apologies and removal of the campaigns failed to quell the outrage. The brand later filed a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, alleging that the inclusion of real legal papers from a Supreme Court decision in the campaign photographs was unauthorized and led to false associations between Balenciaga and child pornography.
The fallout from the controversy has been significant, with Business of Fashion revoking an award planned for Demna and social media are targeting the global fashion industry for not being more openly critical of Balenciaga’s provocative marketing strategy. Celebrities like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who have had connections with Balenciaga and Demna, also faced scrutiny. Kanye’s professional relationship with Balenciaga ended due to his controversial comments, but he defended the brand and criticized cancel culture. Kim, after walking in a Balenciaga couture runway show, expressed concerns about the disturbing images and re-evaluated her relationship with the brand. The long-term repercussions for Balenciaga, part of the luxury conglomerate Kering, remain uncertain.
The brand’s revenue, estimated at about nearly $2 billion in 2021, could be impacted by the ongoing firestorm. Despite the controversy, Balenciaga’s website continued to offer unique, albeit expensive, products, such as a dog bowl with spikes and a trio of Christmas tree ornaments. While the controversy may eventually subside, the Balenciaga campaigns have underscored the potential consequences for brands pushing the boundaries of fashion in the age of social media and heightened sensitivities around sensitive topics like child exploitation. The fashion industry may need to strike a delicate balance between artistic expression and respecting societal values to avoid further controversies in the future.